December 17, 2003: Features



Keeping faith
On the largely secular Princeton campus, the role of religion in students’ lives is growing

By Amy Sullivan GS

Last spring, while their schoolmates were buzzing around campus consumed by the pressure of finishing papers, securing the perfect summer internship, or putting the final touch on a thesis, about 20 Princeton students were spending a weekend in the spare monks’ cells of a Benedictine monastery. Like others who seek a simple and quiet retreat at the Holy Cross Monastery, perched high on the west bank of the Hudson River in upstate New York, the Princeton students – undergraduates affiliated with the Episcopal Church – spent most of the weekend in silence, using the time for prayer or meditative walks in the woods surrounding the Dutch Colonial-style buildings that house the monastic community. They attended a full round of daily worship services, including matins at 6 a.m. and compline at the end of the day. And they found, to their surprise, that they got more work done for classes than during a typical weekend on campus.

The retreat “was unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” says Clare Sully ’06, an Episcopalian. “It changed my whole perspective – life can be so stressful, especially at Princeton. But there I had a chance to really consider what having a spiritual life is all about, to think about how to live a meaningful life.” Rev. Dr. Stephen White, Princeton’s Episcopal chaplain, explains that the goal is to teach students balance. “The whole Benedictine approach to spirituality has to do with balance,” he says. “The students are stressed out at Princeton because their lives are all out of balance.”

Academic work, athletics, résumé-building activities, and unwinding on The Street can leave students with little time – and often little inclination – to focus on the spiritual aspects of their lives. The rarefied world of academia traditionally has been less than welcoming to religion, and observant students say they often have felt on the defensive in their classrooms and dorms.

Slowly, steadily, however, religion is gaining strength at Princeton, both as a force in the lives of some students and as a topic of academic study. “Students are less allergic to public forms of religious expression,” says Elliot Ratzman, a graduate student in the Department of Religion, who has been outspoken in discussions of religious life on campus. “It’s no longer marginalized, or simply private.” No longer publicly relegated to a home down Mercer Street – “No, that’s not us, that’s the Seminary” – religion, and its broader expression in spirituality, are alive and well at Princeton University.

For the average freshman arriving at Princeton, introduction to campus religion often comes during orientation week, when religious groups hold an open house. Evan Baehr ’05 says the event sometimes resembles a “used car place,” with organizations offering different food and programming to attract students. The effect, he says, can be overwhelming.

Baehr, who was active in his hometown Florida Presbyterian church before coming to Princeton, waded through the many possibilities and eventually joined a number of Christian campus organizations, including the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship and Agape, a group affiliated with Campus Crusade for Christ. Baehr says that many students conflate “religion” with church attendance instead of viewing it as an influence that can be incorporated into many aspects of student life. For many students, organized religion is all they’ve ever known. Once they arrive on campus, “religion can become just another event to schedule into a Palm Pilot,” says Baehr.

“Students come here with all sorts of baggage about religion,” observes White. “Some have antipathy because their tradition was forced on them. Some come with no language; they don’t know how to frame religion for themselves. Some have a love/hate relationship with the religion they grew up with – one part of it is endearing and beckoning, another part of it is off-putting. As they develop into adults, they have to deal with religion like they do with everything else in their lives. They have to make it authentically their own.” Indeed, many Princeton students – and their peers around the country – fall away from organized religion during their college years, returning most often when they marry and begin to start families. But others don’t want to compartmentalize religion as a postgraduate activity, and find support in a number of places around campus.

Hoping both to fill a “spiritual vacuum” and provide intellectual stimulation, Rupinder Singh GS, assistant master at Wilson College, worked with students this year to begin two activities: a vegetarian cooking class, taught by a Hindu monk, and a group that studies the Bhagavad Gita, a 700-verse Sanskrit poem. “Student life can be hard and challenging, and this was the perfect complement,” says Singh. The “Bhagavad Gita,” he notes, is “an amazingly practical guide,” and students regularly discuss the dilemmas in their lives at Princeton in relation to the readings, bringing Plato, Nietzsche, utilitarianism, and other religious traditions into their discussions. “It brings a certain sense of perspective to life, a spiritual harmony, and, frankly, a community that cuts across disciplinary and other boundaries,” Singh says.

Last year, the University’s Religious Life Council held a Festival of Faiths outside Frist Campus Center, with music from a wide range of religious traditions. The Center for Jewish Life hosts no fewer than 10 separate student groups that provide for the worship, religious study, and social needs of Jewish students at Princeton; there is a daily minyan (a minimum of 10 adult Jews gathered to recite public prayers) at the center, and students from Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox backgrounds can find weekly and holiday services to match their observance. At the top of Murray-Dodge Hall, the Muslim Student Association has a masjid (prayer room) reserved for daily prayers by Muslim students; last year, Muslim students successfully lobbied Frist dining services to provide halal meals (using the meat of animals that have been ritually slaughtered) every Thursday. African-American students find a specific religious outlet through Hallelujah Worship, a student-led interdenominational worship service that has been held in the University Chapel since 1990. And although evangelical groups – including Agape (whose Saturday-night meetings can attract up to 200 people), Manna, Crossroads, and the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship (P.E.F.) – are most visible and active around campus, students can find groups that represent faiths from Baha’i to Jehovah’s Witness, Roman Catholicism to Orthodox Christianity.

In addition, chaplains and other campus staff provide spiritual direction for students looking to focus on their spiritual growth. A number of the evangelical ministries offer “personal hour” – a scheduled, one-on-one mentoring relationship in which students conduct Bible studies or talk about the challenges to their faith with an adult, often a recent graduate or a student from Princeton Theological Seminary. Rabbi James Diamond, director of the Center for Jewish Life, reports that “the current generation of Jewish students is very energized about being Jewish. They are realizing that they have a profound and beautiful heritage, and they’re just beginning to understand that it could be a source of meaning for them. For some that means a Sabbath service, for others it means a trip to Israel, and for still others it means Torah study.”

On Monday nights, in a different dorm room each week, students begin to trickle in around 10 o’clock for meetings of Crossroads – a Christian ministry founded nine years ago by three male members of Tiger Inn. Students perch on chairs, beds, and rugs to share a low-key worship experience. One student leads the others in a few contemporary praise songs, and another reflects on how traditional biblical teachings relate to the very modern lives of Princeton students. Each meeting concludes with a “popcorn” prayer, in which the students bow their heads and offer spontaneous prayer requests or praises, either silently or aloud. Carolyn Pichert ’05, a politics major who also attends Agape activities, says the relaxed atmosphere “draws people who are seekers.” Crossroads’s motto is “Honest answers to honest questions,” a mission that can be less intimidating than one of strict evangelism. Pichert, who attended an Episcopal church in Knoxville throughout her childhood, says she is involved with Crossroads largely because it provides a welcoming environment for students who want to explore issues of religious faith.

In recent years, some students have begun to question whether there is anything more to campus fellowship than socializing under the guise of religious worship. In a Nassau Weekly article last year, Ratzman challenged student religious groups to do more than “hold latke bakes and go on canoe trips.” “In the face of persistent and enduring social evil,” he asked whether religious organizations felt a responsibility to respond to those evils directly. A dialogue ensued, in letters to the editor of the Daily Princetonian and informal student gatherings, about the role of religious student organizations on campus and in society. Some evangelical students pointed out that they had spent fall break working in New York City at the Bowery Mission, a residence for formerly homeless men. Members of Manna, which changed its mission in fall 2003 to focus explicitly on fostering intellectual Christian dialogue, noted that the group now brings speakers from across the University community who share their experiences incorporating faith into their professional lives. In widening their focus, these students say, they have also broadened their outreach. “I’ve talked to people from Christian backgrounds who didn’t feel comfortable attending the fellowships on campus,” says Jane Kim ’04, a member of Manna. “This is an intellectual approach that appeals to them.”

“Religion,” Assistant Professor of Religion Eric Gregory says wryly, “is the one thing an educated person can know nothing about and still be considered educated.” There is some evidence that that is changing, and that the campus is becoming more and more open to the serious consideration of religious ideas and beliefs. Undergraduate enrollment in religion courses appears to be increasing, and while some of the rise may be related to the addition of charismatic professors like Cornel West *80 to the department’s faculty, and to a growing interest in Islam, it also reflects a general curiosity about religion. Moreover, religion and morality increasingly are viewed as topics of academic inquiry outside the religion department itself. In October, for example, Princeton held a two-day conference called “Faith and the Challenges of Secularism” to explore the “challenges posed by secularist ideologies to faith communities, and the ways that such communities respond to these challenges” in international affairs, science, law and public policy, education, economics, and cultural institutions. (The conference was cosponsored by the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, and the University Center for Human Values at Princeton; the Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania; and the Providence Forum, whose mission, according to its Web site, is to “reinstill and promote a Judeo-Christian worldview within our culture.”)

“There is a desire among religious students to think about their religious life in relation to their intellectual life,” says Gregory. “Often, they don’t know much about their own religious traditions and they come here with curiosity about religion. It’s kind of like learning a foreign language – some students may be native speakers, but they don’t necessarily understand its grammar. They come here to learn more about their faith and about other faiths.”

Princeton is not alone in witnessing intellectual and personal curiosity about religion on campus. John DiIulio, a former Princeton professor who is now professor of politics at the University of Pennsylvania, told a Princeton audience last spring that spiritual activity is on the rise at America’s best schools. Bright conservative and religious students who for years sought intellectual shelter at schools like Wheaton College or Gordon-Conwell Seminary – liberal arts colleges that are well known in the evangelical community for providing a strong, “faith-centered” education – are making their way into the classrooms of elite universities, demanding to be taken seriously. DiIulio identifies this trend as a backlash to the dominance of “orthodox secularism” in the academy, and predicts that it will continue over the next decade as the predictable extension of tolerance toward minority groups.

It is also likely that the attacks of September 11, 2001, have prompted students and faculty around the country to return to the study of religion for answers to “Why did this happen?” and for comfort in uncertain times. Thomas Breidenthal, dean of the religious life, says that “after 9/11, there was increased interest in institutional religion and the resources it can provide in times of crisis.” Most social observers agree that this increased religiosity returned to normal levels soon afterward, in terms of church attendance and religious practices like daily prayer or scripture reading, but Breidenthal has noticed two changes that he thinks are more permanent. “Students are increasingly willing to talk about spiritual and religious questions,” he argues, “and they are more willing to articulate curiosity about traditions that are different from their own.” The University is beginning to respond to this willingness; this fall, for the first time, training of resident advisers included “religious sensitivity” discussions, Breidenthal says.

Some religious students say they still feel isolated in the classroom; with its focus on rationality in social and physical sciences, the academy has not traditionally been a welcoming environment for the expression of religious thoughts. Some professors are known among the evangelical student community as being “faith-friendly” – Princeton politics professor Robert George, and Max Stackhouse of Princeton Theological Seminary, a frequent campus lecturer and adviser to student religious groups, are particular favorites – while others carry the underground warning label of “faith-busters.” “Unquestionably, students are expected to check their faith at the classroom door,” says Baehr. But others say this, too, is on the wane. Allison Binns ’03 notes that she would “often bring up religion in class, because it can inform other issues in debates.” While Binns considers herself personally religious – she attended a nondenominational church with her family before coming to Princeton – her goal was to make sure that religious views were not overlooked in the classroom. “The important thing,” she says, “is that I could provide the religious view without necessarily representing it as my own.”

Her last point is one with which many religious students, particularly evangelicals and conservative Catholics, tend to struggle throughout their four years at university. Faith traditions that convey a strict sense of certainty about the world and about theology tend to produce strong believers who have little practice in engaging in critical questioning. For them, college is a time of learning the delicate balance of raising religious beliefs in a manner that can bring about, instead of prevent, intellectual debate. “Dogmatism is always inappropriate in the classroom,” says Gregory. “But that doesn’t mean that religious beliefs should be left outside.”

A consistent theme mentioned by religious students is the challenge of incorporating their faith into their academic and professional work. For some students, this means pursuing a religious vocation. While many of her fellow graduates entered law school or business school this fall, Rebecca Hylander ’03 moved to Cairo to begin a year of mission work as a Presbyterian intern. A number of current students are considering ordination as ministers. And Woodrow Wilson School senior Jane Kim spent the past summer interning in Washington, D.C., not with a congressional office or a lobbying firm, but with the Center for Public Justice, a think tank that “grounds its research . . . and advocacy in a comprehensive Christian political perspective.” Kim recalls that “as a freshman coming into Princeton, I wasn’t sure how I should allow my religious beliefs to inform me.” Working on policy issues in the Woodrow Wilson program, Kim found that her beliefs were closely connected to how she viewed her studies, and determined that she needed to seek out an environment in which the two parts of her life could operate in tandem.

Ironically, sociology professor Robert Wuthnow, director of the University’s Center for the Study of Religion, suggests that it was Princeton’s openness to other aspects of diversity that opened the door for religion to legitimately enter intellectual discourse. “Once you say that there are a lot of different cultural traditions that contribute to campus culture,” he explains, “religion then becomes part of that flourishing, in the same way that race, gender, and other characteristics do. That means, for some faculty, it’s becoming more acceptable for students, faculty, and administrators to have religious inclinations. In teaching literature or history or political science, religion and ethnicity are as important a part of human existence as rationality.”

Amy Sullivan is a Princeton doctoral candidate in sociology, and author of the Web log Political Aims (

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